Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Animation (March 20 1943), Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (May 15 2007), 2 discs, 200 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital Mono, Not Rated (cartoons are uncut and “intended for the adult collector”), Retail: $26.98
Droopy Dog, the very antithesis of a heroic cartoon hero, nonetheless proves to be quite the champion in this series of dawg-gone hysterical cartoons.
The Sweatbox Review:
Walt Disney undoubtedly propelled the animated movie business forward into new territory and his studio was well known for the beautiful shorts they turned out, while over at Warner Bros, directors such as Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett arguably made cartoons, the kind of zip-bang entertainment that has become synonymous with the actual word. Another director at Warners’ old Termite Terrace animation headquarters often gets overlooked, even though he was a major force behind the creation of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, among many others, and coined the phrase “What’s up, doc?”
Although Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery’s contribution to the early Looney Tunes cartoons would later be recognised, it wasn’t until he left the Brothers Warner to head up his own unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that he really came into his own. He produced some of the most comical, hilarious and downright suggestive animated shorts to ever come out from any studio, and certainly influenced every other cartoon company working at the time, introducing the randomness that many take as being fresh and unique in today’s television fare well over 60 years ago! Arguably, Avery was animation’s first “superstar” director, whose name indicated the certain kind of cartoon audiences were about to witness. More than anyone in Hollywood cartoons at the time, Tex pushed the boundaries of not only animation, but the medium of film itself, creating the “blackout” gag structure that later became a mainstream mainstay in cartoons, as well as film sprocket gags, the classic “fake hair in the gate”, and characters facing the camera and breaking the “fourth wall” to stop and talk directly to audiences.
MGM had been releasing cartoons well before Avery came to them in 1942, with their regular suppliers being Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, responsible for the Happy Harmonies; a series of well intentioned and expertly made (Disney himself outsourced one of the Silly Symphonies to Harman-Ising) cartoons, but which didn’t lead to any breakout character stars other than the slightly anaemic Barney Bear. MGM finally struck gold with Hanna-Barbera’s Tom & Jerry and was hungry for another series. When they heard Tex was available (after he had a falling out with WB’s Leon Schlesinger), they snapped him up, essentially creating two units at MGM, both overseen by a certain Fred Quimby, by all accounts an unassuming man, but one that actually exclaimed “I’m not quite sure what is going on” when presented with one of Avery’s early efforts.
At MGM, Avery was able to expand on the lunacy that he had established at Warners and was given – thanks to Quimby’s hands-off approach and the studio’s quality budgets – the power to implement his crazy ideas. Though the Hanna-Barbera unit would be unspeakably influenced by Avery’s style in their Tom & Jerry cartoons, Avery himself never dedicated himself to becoming stuck in the rut of producing a never-ending series of cartoons based around one concept and one set of characters. Though there was a mutual – and respected – game of one-upmanship being played between the two units as to who could out-gag the other, Avery’s shorts allowed a greater playing with genres, styles, characters and stories. Although he attempted several series launches, most notably with Screwball “Screwy” Squirrel, and ended up creating some of the greatest one-shot cartoons of all time, Avery only had success in series-based shorts with one character: the dopey-eyed, slow (but never slow-witted!) basset hound, Droopy Dog.
Unlike so many of the popular breakout characters, Droopy was always intended to be a series star. Avery had already introduced a Wolf character in his first MGM short, The Blitz Wolf (nominated for an Academy Award in 1942), and continued to use him as something of an anti-hero throughout his cartoons. Droopy was introduced as a foil for The Wolf, complete with his own title card and the line “You know what? I’m the hero”, in Avery’s third MGM short Dumb Hounded in 1943. There simply, hadn’t been anything like it, with editing, music and pacing far faster than what had come before, and the wild double takes would only become wilder and more outrageous as Tex continued. However, true to Tex’s resistance to pursuing cartoon stars, Droopy didn’t reappear until 1945’s The Shooting Of Dan McGoo, a parody of the Robert W Service poem. The restyling here of a slimmed down and less basset hound-looking dog is the first clue that Avery envisioned using Droopy as a star series character, after Screwy Squirrel and George & Junior didn’t really make the transition.
Tex gained something of a penchant for dressing Droopy in a wild west guise, and in Wild And Wolfy Sheriff Droopy is up against The Wolf again, this time out to rescue a dame that had already become another Avery mainstay, Red, the sexy dancer who no doubt caused many a censor problems! Red had made her mark as the eponymous heroine of several earlier Avery shorts, including Dan McGoo, but here she really shows off her stuff, much to the liking of The Wolf, who lets rip with a fantastic and outlandish series of double and triple takes that visualise what any red-blooded male goes through when a hot gal appears on the scene! If Avery is remembered for anything other than his directorial touches, it’s his frank attitude to sex and honest handling of these situations. One can hardly blame The Wolf!
Several of the Droopy cartoons have the little dog out west, but Tex returns to the police chase for 1946’s Northwest Hounded Police, which gives this package its main cover image. As part of the Mounties (“We aim to police”), Droopy is after convict The Wolf (who else?) in a cartoon that plays one-half virtual remake of Dumb Hounded to the other half, which contains so much more than that. Indeed, every bug-eyed double take that could be imagined is thrown into the mix, and Avery must have felt the police chasing formula was “done” after this, since Droopy never again returned to chase a convict Wolf. This cartoon, however, which was the first one since Dumb Hounded to feature the Droopy title plate, remains a true classic.
It would be another three years before Tex’s dog would return to the screen, and the result is Señor Droopy (1949), with the pooch up against The Wolf in the bullring for the hand of the lovely Latin star Lina Romay. Another absolute zenith of cartoon gags and pacing is next with Wags To Riches. A popular MGM character was Spike the Dog, who often popped up in various designs and names (another was Butch) throughout the Avery and Hanna-Barbera cartoons and seemed to be shared by both units. While often he would act as a protector for Jerry Mouse in his battles against Tom Cat, in the Avery shorts he was usually cast as a mischievous villain, bent on rubbing Droopy out for his own glory. In Wags, Spike is in with a chance of becoming a millionaire if Droopy doesn’t make it past bedtime, so you can imagine, what with Avery’s often macabre sense of humor, what happens next… Without much worry, Droopy seems to outwit Spike at every turn, and Avery successfully creates an audience’s actual concern for the little dog in this short, which laid the template for numerous other teamings with Spike.
Out-Foxed is a pretty regular cartoon outing, with Droopy one of a number of hounds after a crafty British fox who easily outwits them all. Much of the cartoon relegates Droopy to supporting status as the other dogs get the wrong end of the fox, and the short feels more reminiscent of an early Bugs Bunny cartoon, perhaps one as might have been handled by Hanna-Barbera. While it doesn’t end with Droopy being outfoxed, the ending isn’t really satisfactory either, and this is probably the weakest Avery entry in this collection. That it’s a fairly good short in itself just shows the level that Tex was operating at with the rest of his cartoons.
The Chump Champ – the only Droopy cartoon of 1950 – is another product of brilliant, cartoon genius. Again featuring a battle of wits with Spike, who usually comes off worse despite his best efforts, this is the classic cartoon that introduces the “tim. . .ber!” line into the Avery canon. The gags come so think and fast that it’s often tough to keep up. We’re in 1951 for the hysterical Daredevil Droopy, where the pooch and Spike do their best to get the acrobatic dog job in the circus, and in Droopy’s Good Deed the pair are both trying to be top dog in the Scouts. The soundtrack alone – before we even start talking about the many gags – always has me on the floor. 1951 closes with Droopy’s Double Trouble which doesn’t play the predictable route of having Droopy at the mercy of a doppelganger, but rather teaming up with his immensely stronger brother Drippy to confuse poor Spike, leading to one of the greatest iris-closing breakdowns ever.
Tex took some time out from his hectic schedule to recharge the batteries in the early 1950s, and his unit’s cartoons continued under the direction of Dick Lundy, who had come from the Woody Woodpecker series at Universal. With Avery’s sometimes co-director and animator Michael Lah, the Droopy design was further simplified to reflect the new decade’s overall emphasis on clean lines and more stylised approach, as was popular in the UPA-influenced 1950s Hollywood cartoons. Caballero Droopy (1952), directed by Lundy (though this goes incorrectly unmentioned on the packaging), is more narrative than a true Avery short, with a much more sedate pacing. Ironically, it feels more like a Donald Duck/Chip ‘n’ Dale cartoon from the 1940s, which isn’t surprising considering Lundy was instrumental in the creation of the Duck. Even The Wolf here is more Paul Terry than Avery, and perhaps the cartoon’s main shortcoming is that – final Tex-lifted train gag aside – it’s just too logical! Avery’s leave of absence wouldn’t last long, and he was soon back heading up the unit, with Lundy moving on to the Barney Bear shorts for MGM’s Hanna-Barbera.
As well as being a crazy re-telling of the Three Pigs story (Droopy’s brothers this time around are Snoopy and Loopy), The Three Little Pups (1953) is also notable for the introduction of a more slow-witted Wolf character that was voiced by Daws Butler and would later become the inspiration for Hanna-Barbera’s television Huckleberry Hound. Droopy, throughout most of these cartoons, is voiced by Bill Thompson, a versatile radio actor who later came to prominence at Disney’s with a slew of multiple star parts, most notably Mr Smee in Peter Pan, no less than five roles in Lady And The Tramp and the first to give voice to Scrooge McDuck, in his 1967 animated debut.
Heading further into the 1950s, the influence of the television westerns of the time becomes more obvious (as seen in a live-action gag in Pups, above, and the next cartoon). In my younger days, even before I got into LaserDisc, myself and my friends’ fix of Avery Droopy magic came from a bargain bin VHS compilation, and the cartoon that the tape was always fixed at was Drag-A-Long Droopy (1954), another classic, and with one of the most obvious understatement lines of dialogue that still does nothing but crack me up into silliness (“You know…I raise cattle”). We’re still in the west for Homesteader Droopy, while Dixieland Droopy is something of an odd cartoon in the series, with Droopy almost a supporting player to an act of fleas that make it big at the Hollywood Bowl, showing nothing of his usual spark, and actually being the chased one here rather than the chaser. Proving this collection is uncut, though, is the often-deleted scene of Droopy’s little fleas relaxing with some cigarette butts (several other “blackface” gags are also left intact throughout the set).
Remember that VHS I mentioned above? Well if it wasn’t playing Drag-A-Long, it would be playing the next short here, Deputy Droopy (1955), co-directed by Michael Lah. Yep, we’re back in the west for another cartoon that I can’t do anything but praise once more. With the Sheriff in the next room and especially susceptible to any noise, Droopy must do his best to protect the safe when bank robbers Slim and Shorty come to town. Variants on this theme had been explored before, and would be expanded well after, but it was never done as fast and furiously as here. Fantastic, and a heck of a way for Avery to bow out from the Droopy series.
Perhaps it was the retirement of Fred Quimby in 1955 that caused a burnt out Tex Avery to leave MGM behind for another deal at the Walter Lantz studio (where he has actually started when Lantz took over the Oswald Rabbit series from Disney). Already theatrical cartoons were becoming less and less frequent on booking programs and Tex found himself at the helm of a short series of almost dead-end Chilly Willy cartoons that would later get more exposure on television. At MGM, the Droopy series continued for a while under the remaining team of Hanna-Barbera, who produced the films with Michael Lah receiving directorial credit. Making this collection well worth a purchase even for those with the Compleat Tex Avery LaserDisc set is the inclusion of these seven final shorts.
The first of the post-Avery cartoons was actually based on one of his earlier efforts. Millionaire Droopy (1956) is a CinemaScope remake of Avery’s Wags To Riches by Hanna-Barbera, though Avery gets the director’s credit. Stylised backgrounds aside, this is a shot-by-shot retread, and nothing more, that even uses the exact same soundtrack. Though the gags are still great, of course, the staging doesn’t feel right due to the reuse of animation from the earlier film that’s been shoehorned into the wider screen aspect. Whereas the intention of CinemaScope was to widen the screen, the cropping used only reinforces the cramped nature of the framing. If only Avery had been able to stick around MGM as they went into their widescreen era – oh the lunacy and fun he could have had with all that extra space to play with!
The remainder of the ’Scope cartoons directed by Lah are better, though the absence of Avery is very much evident. I haven’t seen these since TV airings in the 1980s; they’ve never had the pull of Avery’s name to be released to home video before and were understandably not included in the earlier Compleat Tex Avery LaserDisc collection. Grin And Share It (1957) is the first true non-Avery cartoon and makes its “clean start” clear from the brand new title plate and new Droopy design. The animation can’t hold a candle to the likes of Preston Blair’s lavish fluidity in the earlier shorts, but the gags and speed of the staging come as thick and fast as ever, with goldminers Droopy and Butch duking it out over their rocky loot. The dim-witted, Huckleberry Hound-inspring Wolf from Three Little Pups is back in Blackboard Jumble (1957), one of the earliest Droopy shorts I ever saw and one that I’m very glad to finally have in my collection. The Daws Butler-voiced Wolf plays schoolteacher to a class of rowdy Droopy pups, and though this one’s jokes rely more on Butler’s voice and written lines, it’s still a very funny cartoon.
Despite the good intentions by Hanna-Barbera and Michael Lah, it wasn’t long after Avery left that the MGM animation unit closed, with studio bosses deciding they could re-issue their vast back-catalog of shorts rather than produce new ones – a strategy that lasted only a few years before Chuck Jones was invited to head up a new Tom & Jerry unit. By the time that One Droopy Knight gained an Academy Award nominee in 1957, the animation studio had already closed. These later Droopy cartoons feature more setup and structure than Avery’s gag-fests, and One Droopy Knight is a very handsome cartoon among these efforts. In fact, had I not known that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty wasn’t set for release for another two years after this cartoon’s debut, one could easily mistake this in places for a pastiche of that film’s lavish art direction. The storybook opening allows for the simpler artwork and slightly more limited animation to work well within its own confines.
There were still three Droopy shorts to be released before the series ended, and all three came to theaters in 1958. Sheep Wrecked heads back to the west for another encounter with that Huckleberry Wolf, this time out to nab some lambs from under sheepdog Droopy’s watchful eye. As usual with this Wolf character, it’s a more talky cartoon than the earlier ones, being more character based around Daws Butler’s voice, but though it doesn’t have the zippiness of a Tex classic, it still feels fresh and funny, if in a less manic package. Much faster is Mutts About Racing, which predates series such as Wacky Races and feature pictures as The Great Race and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, to which this feels like some kind of cousin. Desperate to win the $100,000 race, Daredevil Butch carries out every dirty trick in the book to get ahead of Buzz Droopy, who succeeds, of course, without really trying. Mutts feels very much like a later, 1960s cartoon, has good production values for the time and, despite recycling some ancient jokes from previous animated shorts, recaptures the wit and zeal of Tex’s orignals.
The theatrical Droopy cartoons came to a close with Droopy Leprechaun, in which our hero is mistaken for a lucky charm while on vacation in Ireland. This somewhat archaic short would be the little basset’s last appearance on screens until television’s Filmation studio brought him back for a weekly show some 12 years later, but the quality, animation and sheer style were never the same. Droopy’s made comebacks since, most lamentably in a comedy mystery show that’s truly left best forgotten, though better was seen in the paean to Golden Age animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and its follow-up Maroon Cartoons. After the closing of the original MGM animation unit in the 1950s, Hanna-Barbera moved into their well-documented television success story, but Tex Avery’s work dried up and he ended up creating and directing several commercials until classic animation made something of a comeback in the 1970s. A number of documentaries were made about, and with the cooperation of, surviving members of the Looney Tunes units, and Avery’s contributions were then finally well established.
He returned to television to work with old MGM studio colleagues Hanna-Barbera to develop The Kwiki-Koala Show, but passed on in 1980 before the program could make its debut. Hanna-Barbera continued with the show and dedicated it to their friend, but the greatest way to remember him is with his prolific output from the 1940s and ’50s. This set celebrates the leading character of a great cartoon director, and what’s great is that, despite similarly themed cartoons, no two are ever the same! Hopefully good sales of Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Theatrical Collection will lead to Warners’ promised collection of the other Avery shorts. Though there are some absolute gems here, and any Avery collection should automatically find its way to your shelves, the best is, perhaps, still to come!
Is This Thing Loaded?
In anticipation of a second set completing the Avery canon, I would like to get a word in early and urge Warners to track down an excellent documentary, simply titled Tex Avery, from the BBC archives. I first saw this comprehensive one-hour program during the Golden Age animation renaissance that greeted Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s release in 1988, and the off-air VHS taping I have of that show is a very much cherished item. It would make a truly fitting companion to a set of Avery’s one-shots and remains one of the best retrospective documentaries I have ever seen. Find it, clear it, include it!!
As for what we are served in Droopy: The Theatrical Collection, well it’s a slim but enthusiastic bunch of material. Each disc opens with a disclaimer on the wrongs of yesteryear’s society, and I’ve said before that if sitting through these short blurbs means we get uncut cartoons, then I don’t have a problem with ’em at all! Here it’s a short text screen that zips by in a flash, so no harm done, and Warners makes the overly-PC brigade happy as Larry. Job done. The main menus (4:3 on disc one, 16:9 on disc two) aren’t anything amazing, just the Droopy theme played over a still graphic that annoyingly points to the animated shorts as “episodes”.
Droopy And Friends: A Laugh Back is the set’s major bonus, an 18-minute documentary that does a nice job of setting up the time period during which Tex Avery’s brand of lunacy invaded cinema screens. Although the 4:3 piece concentrates on Tex’s involvement with the Droopy series, clips are often included from across the board, meaning that some non-Avery moments are thrown into the mix even when dealing with him specifically. The big-name authoritative interview catch is John Canemaker, here credited not as a historian but as an Oscar Winning Animator, after his recent success. John briefly fills us in on Tex’s formative years and his time at Warners before settling in at MGM, where he developed his style further. Though the emphasis is on Droopy and non of the one-shot cartoons get a mention, this light ‘n’ fluffy featurette does a fair job of explaining the philosophy behind Avery’s films, but it’s not a patch on the BBC documentary I’ve mentioned above.
Doggone Gags reminded me of the idea behind the 50 Years Of Bugs Bunny clip short, in which many iconic shots were blasted into just over three minutes. This is very much the same, but it’s not as quickly paced and feels a bit random, with the odd editing (not as rapid fire as it needs to be) actually dimming the laugh quota of the original gags. There’s some funny stuff in here to be sure, but essentially this is five minutes of padding when something much zippier could have been chopped down from this same grouping of material, and the jaunty musical background doesn’t help in being non-specific. A nice thought, but not very well implemented.
Finally, there are preview trailers for other classic animation titles from Warner Home Video, including the upcoming Wait Till Your Father Gets Home: Season One, a generic spot for Cartoons From The Vault and, most excitingly, Popeye The Sailor: 1933-1938. It seems the magic words are again “remastered” rather than “restored” here since, as with this very collection of Droopy cartoons, the image quality doesn’t look as sparkly as we might be hoping for, so lower your expectations accordingly.
Warners returns to the lavish digi-pak fold-out casing with slipcover protection for The Complete Theatrical Collection and I have to say I do prefer this kind of cover to a standard plastic case. The front cover image isn’t the best that has adorned Droopy collections over the years, and the less said about the totally off-model image on the back the better (save to say that, as a Droopy collection, he doesn’t get a lot of sleeve space). Much, much better is seen on the inside, with a two-tray fold-out holding both discs, a list of the cartoons on the back and – best of all – a very enticing “pin-up” style rendering of Red, from The Shooting Of Dan McGoo, spread across the entire two tray space. Jessica Rabbit, eat your heart out…phew!
Ink And Paint:
As has been reported on the web, the dreaded Digital Video Noise Reduction process has been used on the cartoons in the Droopy Collection. Not only do I agree that more stringent methods should be brought in before a computer program is allowed to remove “unwanted” lines that turn out to be valid pieces of the animator’s intended outlining, but I must say that it is a double shame when these remastering jobs are likely to become the de facto standard in the presentation and future preserving of these titles. Heck, I’d sit watching cartoons for free all day if it meant someone could keep an eye on not having too much taken out of the picture’s information! There used to be a time when manual paint-boxing the scratches and dirt out of a frame was the way to go. Now cost and technology means that it’s all automated, with the results sometimes less than desirable…
I’m all for the cleanup and restoration of cartoons, but surely a human eye – and there must have been someone responsible watching these things – should have picked up these algorithm anomalies? At the very least, early masters should be sent out to a handful of trusted animation advisors in order to protect what should be evident in the films. This all being said, the examples in this collection aren’t among the worst I’ve ever come across, and the quality of the shorts themselves is the most important thing. Their fast moving nature often means that such DVNR issues won’t be spotted by most, but there will be some purists that hold off buying these sets because of these issues (which really shouldn’t be an issue), which ends up not doing anyone any good. In presenting their animation legacies, I’m still shocked and surprised that the studios still do so little to actually preserve them.
Then again, was using DVNR actually worth it? The actual image quality of this Avery collection isn’t as fully restored as it could have been, with the earlier cartoons particularly looking absolutely full of print debris and exposure fluctuations. In fact, on the smattering of cartoons I compared between the two, I have to question whether the quality is actually any better than the LaserDisc offering of The Compleat Tex Avery from 1992. True that we seem to get a bit more image information than on that LD, with the framing here slightly zoomed out from the earlier release. There’s probably more picture detail here over the LD too, with better coloring open to debate, but this isn’t the best these cartoons have ever looked, and a couple of massive print marks go unchecked.
While some cartoons have some gags helped by the extra image areas we’re seeing, some have the adverse effect, especially Northwest Hounded Police, which has a very bad continuous stream of damage running along the left side of the image for the entire cartoon. These are certainly new transfers, and not recycled from the prints used on the LaserDisc, so mores the pity: sadly the better contrasting doesn’t outweigh the amount of specks, scratches and grain contained here, which is disappointing. The first 17 cartoons are presented in their natural 1.33:1 Academy ratio, with the final seven shorts – which DO look fantastic – in their 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect, with anamorphic enhancement. As mentioned before, the cartoons are shown uncut…something even the earlier LaserDisc set wasn’t able to maintain in one or two instances, but on the majority of shorts it’s a toss-up between the two formats.
The MGM shorts always sounded good thanks to the incessant soundtracks most usually filled with the music of Scott Bradley. The recordings are sharp, so reproduction here is strong for the most part, with the volume between each cartoon mastered correctly as not to suddenly have a moment pop out without intention. Again, it’s in the air as to whether the original LaserDisc collection sounds slightly “crisper”, but the audio here is fine, if sometimes a little muted. Unlike the visuals, the later cartoons don’t necessarily sound better than the older ones, but don’t have the frenetic energy of the earlier horn-blaring Bradley scores either. Good across the board, with some sounding much better than others.
Despite a couple of serious technical issues which may otherwise go unnoticed by most, this collection is simply essential and not a lot more can be said. I would suggest to Warners that, based on good sales, they should look to put out a companion set dedicated to Avery’s other work (“from the creator of Droopy”?) rather than repeat the cartoons here. There’s still tons of great stuff left, and repetition is something WB is usually keen to avoid as they know the fans hate the double-dipping all too widespread from other companies. I would them urge again to invest in the terrific BBC documentary Tex Avery as an extra, which would, coupled with this fine set, complete his entire MGM filmography on DVD with exceptional style. Avery’s work has long been appreciated but overlooked by the masses, and it’s high time this groundbreaking, influential and absolutely downright inspired lunatic director was given his dues. This is some of his greatest work…lap it up!